24 New Criticism

The Cost of Freedom: A Critical Look at The Thing Around Your Neck

Wyatt Haedt

The United States is often perceived as a land of freedom and equal opportunities. Still, after residing there for an extended period, this apparent freedom can start to feel constricting, akin to a tightening noose. This sensation is particularly pronounced for immigrants seeking a fresh start, with some achieving their goals while others face challenges. Nevertheless, these ideas are thoroughly explored in the captivating short story The Thing Around Your Neck. Analyzing the story from a new critical perspective reveals a plethora of captivating and intricately woven details that compel readers to pause and reflect. These details are evident in the story’s title, themes, symbolism, and technical motifs. These all contribute to a beautifully crafted narrative that explores the disillusionment of the ideal, alienation from self and society, and thus the cost of freedom.

The Thing Around Your Neck is an impactful title, and this impact is what draws the reader to the central themes within the story. However, there are many implications when reading the title. Thoughts of racial discrimination, suicide, and being entrapped could cross someone’s mind when reading the title. These are all valid assumptions if the title is read in a vacuum. However, as the reader moves forward they find that the ropes of depression, loneliness, and disillusion due to events in the story are what are tied around the narrator’s neck. These are just parts of the overall phenomenal themes found within the story.

The first of the major themes is that of femininity and its importance in both the narrative and the real world. According to Hera M. Sharobeem, “The collection presents stories of women residing in different spaces—domestic, hybrid, border, and marginal—that color and shape their lives and destinies. These women live, according to John Madera, “between worlds, struggling with identity, with mapping, navigating, and trespassing boundaries”(Sharobeem). Akunna is no exception to this, as she navigates the strange new world she finds herself in. Being both an immigrant and a woman made it difficult for her to fit in and find her place in America; especially without getting backlash. This makes her feel alienated and removes her preconceived notions of America.

These are essentially the next major themes; alienation, and understanding the truth behind perceived perfection. This process of understanding the real America starts from the very beginning when the protagonist states “The people who came out to say goodbye, to rejoice because you won the American visa lottery”(Adichie). “Terming the “visa lottery” as such shows how coveted American visas are; they’re something won, not just something one gets”(LitCharts). This idealizes America and puts the country on a pedestal, where you can only get in with sheer luck and tenacity. However, this idealization is swiftly crushed, as when Akunna attends community college she is questioned about her hair and how she can speak English well. This separates Akunna from her peers in an emotional sense. This is after she is required to drive an hour out just to get her hair done; physically alienating herself from everyone else. Not to mention her conviction and perseverance to speak good English are just seen as strange and are not outwardly admirable by her peers. Such conviction should be seen as important to these fellow Americans, who should ideologically love what Akunna is capable of. But America and the people within it are much different from the perfect versions that Akunna first thought.

This is yet another powerful theme found in the story, as learning about what you thought to be perfect is not at all what was expected. Tying into the theme of alienation, another instance is when Akunna is shown the unfortunate reality of America when her employer hires her under the table for a dollar less than what is offered and only hears “all immigrants worked hard”(Adichie). Hearing that the only thing she is to her employer is a hard-working immigrant when she hasn’t worked a day for the company adds to the overall disillusion Akunna has toward America. She feels so ideologically challenged and broken that she even won’t write to her family back home. “Her disillusionment silences her voice—she can’t write anything to her parents, because what she experiences isn’t the American dream they hoped for”(LitCharts).

This then leads to one of the better instances of imagery found in The Thing Around Your Neck. With that being, “At night, something wrapped itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you woke up”(Adichie). This line is so visceral, and it feels real to the reader, but it is all within the head of Akunna. All of these different experiences are given a physical form via a rope that strangles her. It forces her to maintain a flawed perception of what America can be like for an immigrant to her parents back home. The use of juxtaposing the true feeling of being strangled by a land that prides itself on freedom.

Another moment of well-done imagery is found in the first couple of paragraphs when Akuuna makes it to America and is given a hotdog by her uncle. “He picked you up at the airport and bought you a big hot dog with yellow mustard that nauseated you”(Adichie). This was about the most American way to be introduced to the country, so much so that it gave Akunna an early taste of what was to come. The idea of a hotdog inspires thoughts of baseball, auctions, and other American pastimes. Interestingly enough, this makes Akunna feel sick. This encounter with the hotdog essentially encapsulates the entire story, with an initial infatuation, followed by forced acceptance, and later leaving it behind.

After looking at all these themes it is important to look into the recurring motifs found in the story was written. In the case of The Thing Around Your Neck, the usage of the second person is incredibly important and ties directly into the themes previously stated. Using ‘you’ instead of I or a third-person variation creates two different narrative gold nuggets. Firstly, the reader can place themselves directly into the shoes of Akunna. This can be very helpful if the reader can’t otherwise relate to Akunna whether they be male or non-immigrant etc. However, the usage of the second person further ties into the theme of alienation. Akunna is not writing this to herself, rather she is almost completely detached from the fact that she is the one who experienced the story. She became so disillusioned, and so alienated, that her ability to see herself is essentially gone.

In conclusion, The Thing Around Your Neck masterfully delves into the complexities of the American experience, where the initial allure of freedom and opportunity can gradually transform into a burdensome constraint. Through meticulous attention to details in the story’s title, themes, symbolism, and motifs, the reader is invited to contemplate the intricacies. The feminine experience coupled with the painful dissolution of what was perceived as great, and the addition of visceral alienation are all used to craft an excellent narrative on the reality immigrants in America live in.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Thing around Your Neck. Fourth Estate Ltd, 2016.

“Chatgpt.” ChatGPT,https://chat.openai.com/c/03a3de18-1655-4aa9-95c5-3fbf74c535b7. Accessed 6 Dec. 2023.

Sharobeem, Heba M. “Space as the representation of cultural conflict and Gender Relations in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck.” Rocky Mountain Review, vol. 69, no. 1, 2015, pp. 18–36, https://doi.org/10.1353/rmr.2015.a580802.

“The Thing around Your Neck: The Thing around Your Neck Summary & Analysis.” LitCharts, www.litcharts.com/lit/the-thing-around-your-neck/the-thing-around-your-neck. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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